Billy Wilder is one of those directors who have largely escaped my attention, perhaps because his last movie—the one release of his I saw in the theater growing up—was the not-very-good-at-all Lemmon/Matthau pairing Buddy, Buddy. On the other hand Stalag 17 was sort of a “family classic” and I adore Ninotchka, though I had never really associated either with Wilder. As such, Witness for the Prosecution, the second film on our “legal” double-feature (along with 12 Angry Men) was a wonderful surprise.
Based on a smash hit play by Agatha Christie, Witness is about Leonard, a naive American (Tyrone Power) who finds himself seriously implicated in the death of a rich, elderly widow (character actress Norma Varden, who has a small role in Casablanca as the wife of the poor sap who gets pick-pocketed). His troubles lead him to the convalescing curmudgeonly barrister, Sir Wilfrid (Charles Laughton, who would lose the Oscar to Alec Guiness, Bridge on the River Kwai). Wilfrid is being henpecked by his nurse (Laughton’s real-life wife, Elsa Lanchester, who would lose her Oscar to Miyoshi Umeki, Sayonara) but cannot resist the urge to take this seemingly unwinnable case.
Obfuscating matters is Leonard’s utter dependence on his wife, Christine (Marlene Dietrich, who would not even get a nom for her tremendous performance) who simultaneously assures the barrister that she will testify on his behalf while implying very strongly that she’s making the alibi up, and outright demonstrating her contempt for her poor sap of a husband.
Coming as it did after 12 Angry Men, this movie seemed positively lax in its shots and blocking, as virtually any movie would have to. It’s not a fair comparison to make, obviously, and WftP has some tremendous shots, the sort of classic noir composition Wilder showcased in Double Indemnity. The acting is amazing. The score is good, too, which is interesting because the composer was Matty Malneck, whose only other similar credit was the Red Skelton comedy “Public Pigeon No. 1” from the same year. Malneck was a ’30s bandleader who got his start with The Paul Whiteman Orchestra and who was best known for penning popular songs “I’m Through With Love” and “Some Like It Hot”—and who would oversee the music in Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (the next film of Wilder’s we would see, coincidentally).
Agatha Christie named this the only film adaptation of her work that she actually liked, until 1974’s Murder On The Orient Express—directed by 12 Angry Men‘s Sidney Lumet. So you can kind of see why The Flower was buzzed on classic films after this. We would follow up this with Guys and Dolls, Casablanca and West Side Story, leading her to pronounce that we had seen all the good movies (which opinion she wouldn’t fully retract for a month, when would see Rocky).
Listed at #68 on the (ever dubious) IMDB Top 250, this is the sort of gem that gets overlooked, though it is ranked higher on the same list than Bridge on the River Kwai (#138), as well as Sayonara, Peyton Place and The Three Faces of Eve (unranked), which would all win Oscars that year. It lost all six Oscars it was nominated for, just as 12 Angry Men lost the three it was nominated for. Only Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (nominated for zero Oscars) is ranked higher.